Although postsecondary enrollment has been declining for several years in a row overall, that hasn’t been the case at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. This small liberal arts college has been fortunate with a record number of inquiries and applications in recent years.
But that’s created an entirely different kind of challenge: without any additional staff, it’s been increasingly difficult for the admissions team to continue providing every student with the high level of individual support that the college is known for. Thankfully, they’ve found a way to provide students with 24/7 personal engagement and free up more staff time for more one-on-one conversations. The key was partnering with Mainstay to bring their school mascot to life as an AI-powered chatbot.
The commitment to a personalized collegiate experience
Students frequently choose Allegheny because of the institution’s small classes, low faculty-to-student ratio, and high level of personal engagement between students and college staff.
Embracing the uniqueness and individuality of each student is a particularly important part of the school’s mission. As a member of the Colleges That Change Lives organization (CTCL), Allegheny is fully committed to “building the knowledge, character, and values of young people by introducing them to a personalized and transformative collegiate experience.”
The personalization can start even before students apply, as they visit the campus, call or write with inquiries, or meet the staff at events. The staff at Allegheny pride themselves on the “personal touch” they offer throughout the admissions and enrollment process. The admissions officers often develop close relationships with prospective students and serve as their primary contact as they go through the application process.
However, as Allegheny’s popularity grew, the admissions team was finding it harder and harder to find the time to build and maintain those one-on-one relationships with students.
Challenges facing the Admissions team
Allegheny remained intent on maintaining their hallmark philosophy of providing personalized support to all of their prospective students, yet their staff size remained static. With their rising number of inquiries and applicants, how could they possibly meet students where they are, maintain the personal touch crucial to their mission, and prevent burdening their staff with more work?
Cornell LeSane, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions, and Jason Andracki, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions, knew they faced several challenges in meeting their goal.
First, traditional methods of outreach (i.e., email, phone, and snail mail) were labor-intensive and had diminishing returns on staff time and investment. Increasing communication via these channels required additional hours from staff.
Second, increasing the staff’s workload was not an option. Their team was already feeling the crunch of putting in extra hours trying to connect with students, which ironically left them less time for one-on-one student relationships.
Third, it wasn’t enough to maintain the status quo. In alignment with their mission, they were constantly seeking better ways to personally engage students with the goal of increasing their reach and improving the quality and diversity of each incoming class.
The best way to capture students’ attention
As LeSane and Andracki thought of ways to meet these challenges, they looked into one-to-one text messaging. They understood that texting was the best way to capture students’ attention and, according to Andracki, “we didn’t want to be left behind.”
Recent studies have shown that 98% of text messages are read within 15 minutes while only about 22% of emails are opened. Andracki even mentioned his own personal experience on the matter:
This isn’t to say that they didn’t have any concerns about texting. For one, they were hesitant to text message students during the recruitment process, wanting to avoid pestering them if they weren’t truly interested in Allegheny. They were also cautious about messaging costs, but they came to realize that most students now have unlimited texting plans.
Their largest concern, though, was saddling their already overworked staff with the responsibility of responding to incoming student messages. The admissions team was young and mobile-friendly, so they’d already done some texting with students on their personal cell phones. However, much like emails or phone calls, the process was a time-consuming one and could not be efficiently scaled to meet the increasing demand.
“It’s not that we don’t want to work hard,” said Andracki, “but we eventually do sleep at times and we have time outside of the office where we’re not tied to our computer and our phones.”
What they needed was a way to text students without adding to staff workloads. Their ideal solution would not only be responsive to students and capture their attention, but also would allow the technology to work for them, instead of the other way around.
The solution to personalized messaging at scale
After LeSane and Andracki evaluated several text messaging options, they found that Mainstay would give them the best of both worlds: a way to provide students with highly personalized, two-way conversations via text and reduce the time staff had to dedicate to messaging and outreach.
After seeing the incredible success of “Pounce,” the chatbot Mainstay designed for Georgia State University, Allegheny had Mainstay develop “Chompers,” a custom chatbot with the persona of their beloved alligator mascot.
Powered by artificial intelligence, Chompers met all of Allegheny’s messaging needs – and then some. The chatbot could:
- Proactively nudge students to do everything from completing applications to registering for on-campus events
- Provide students with personalized responses to their questions within seconds, 24/7 – even outside of staff’s office hours
- Empower students with the choice to pause or even end the conversation, alleviating concerns about bothering students who were not interested
- Give staff the opportunity to easily monitor thousands of conversations and better evaluate student interest across their inquiry pool
Given Chompers’ ability to provide personalized, instantaneous responses across a wide range of questions, LeSane and Andracki decided to use the chatbot throughout the recruitment and admissions process.
Promising results right from the start
In just the first few months of Chompers’ implementation, Allegheny saw valuable results in several key areas:
Fast form completion.
Allegheny received 72 housing form submissions within 72 hours of a Chompers nudge. “That’s a real turnaround for those forms!” commented Andracki.
High Facebook engagement.
Allegheny’s Class of 2021 Facebook page saw thirty new signups within the first hour of Chompers’ message campaign. Overall, 268 out of 414 students – more than half of the entire group – signed up since Chompers started messaging.
Double the registrations.
After Chompers messaged back-and-forth with students about an on-campus program, Allegheny saw more than double the registrations than for the previous two events combined.
More student evaluations.
For on-campus programs, Allegheny is receiving more student evaluations via Chompers than ever previously captured. “We’ve definitely gotten a much better response in our post-visit survey with Chompers, particularly from students,” said Andracki, “In the past, it’s been the parents that do those evaluations, and while we want to keep them happy, we also really want to hear from students.”
Admissions staff embrace Chompers
Students loved Chompers – and so did the admissions team. The increased engagement among students delighted the staff. Perhaps just as exciting was how Chompers eased their burden by handling almost all routine messaging and transaction inquiries, allowing them to spend more time building the close relationships they so valued with their students.
|Immediate Response||Time Of Day|
|99.8% of messages handled by Chompers. ||72% Inside Of Office Hours|
28% Outside of Office Hours
“They’ve been very excited about Chompers,” noted Andracki, “It’s sharing some of the work.”
The team especially appreciated no longer having to tap out messages one-by-one on their personal cell phones. Andracki commented that “having a way of reaching students via text without them having to do it on their own personal device has been great and has been a relief for them.”
The future of Chompers—and Allegheny—is bright
As the Allegheny team has worked side-by-side with Chompers, they’ve seen how the AI-powered chatbot has grown. By following the best practice of being active participants in the training of Chompers’ knowledge base, they’ve been able to maximize the technology’s capabilities and enhance the level of personalization it delivers when communicating with students.
“We want to help feed Chompers’ knowledge, help it grow, learn more about Allegheny,” said Andracki. “It’s also given us an insight into different ways that students respond and ask questions.”
And Chompers will be learning and developing much more in the coming semesters. Although the chatbot is already engaging with thousands of students interested in attending Allegheny College, the team is already looking forward to expanding Chompers to assist admitted students with the enrollment process and, in the future, help enrolled students build stronger connections to their campus community.
With Allegheny and Chompers, every student can look forward to an incredibly personalized and transformative collegiate experience, from the first time they express interest in the school all the way to graduation.